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Riots At South Carolina Prison Spark Wave of Lawsuits

by David M. Reutter

The April 15, 2018, riot at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution (LCI) illustrates the consequences of prison understaffing. That riot was the worst in America’s prisons in 25 years. The toll was seven dead and 22 injured. The aftermath is at least 18 lawsuits.

LCI, like many prisons in America, was understaffed when hundreds of competing gang members were transferred to the prison before the riot, “exacerbating an already dangerous environment,” the lawsuits allege. Insufficient staff is caused by meager pay in a volatile environment, which causes guards to move on to better employment prospects.

Low pay scales result in guards trafficking in contraband, which creates turf wars and extortion inside prisons. As violence increases, prisoners arm themselves for self-protection. Add a lack of medical and mental health care, and the prison becomes a powder keg.

“It’s a recipe for bad things to happen,” said attorney Carter Elliott, who has filed 10 of the 18 lawsuits related to the riot. “If these things keep happening and people keep dying, they are going to get sued.”

South Carolina has seen an increase in prion-related lawsuits in recent years. Between 2013 and May 2019, its insurer paid out $19 million for the prison system, with $11.5 million of that in attorney fees. The number of settlements continues to rise. The state settled 14 suits in 2015, 25 in 2016, and 34 in 2017. In March 2018, prisoner Christopher Squalls received a $150,000 settlement for an incident at LCI during which gang members beat him with metal locks for failing to join the gang. They continued to beat him as he screamed for help.

Lawyers say the rise in settlements is an indication that conditions inside the prisons are deteriorating. Elliott has sued the prison system for 25 of his 30 years as a lawyer, and he has seen ups and downs. He said the violent episodes seem more frequent now. That is borne out by statistics. Five prisoners were killed in South Carolina prisons in 2016. That number grew to 12 in 2018, and nine in the first half of 2019.

The lawsuits say the LCI incident started when two prisoners began fighting. The two guards did nothing to stop it. Instead, they abandoned ship and locked down the unit, leaving the prisoners “alone and unsupervised.” Two hours later, the riot spread to another dorm, and guards reported seeing “numerous hatchets and knives.” The lawsuit filed by the estate of prisoner Raymond Scott says that Scott was attacked and killed while a guard in the Control Room “sat and watched as the violence unfolded.” Some prisoners escaped to the recreational yard and were locked in without aid being rendered.

The riot was a big event, but such incidents occur regularly and point to the need for change. Elliott obtained a $600,000 settlement in 2013 for the estate of prisoner Ricky Cooper. His body was found stuck with pens and safety pins at McCormick Correctional Institution. Swastikas and “pervert” were written on Cooper’s skin. Cooper, a child molester, was found strangled to death.

“With almost every stabbing, every strangling, every death, there’s a good chance they didn’t have adequate people there,” said Elliott. “They can’t stop all the phones, the shanks, the drugs, but they have to do something to get it turned around.” See: Scott v. Patterson, USDC, D. South Carolina, Case No. 8:19-cv-02057. 


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Related legal case

Scott v. Patterson